Dele Alli at Everton: It was never going to be simple
Dele Alli at Everton: It was never going to be simple

The final nail in the coffin for Dele Alli at Everton came in the opening weeks of the season.

With striking options thin on the ground at Goodison Park, the former Tottenham and England man had been heralded in some quarters as a potential makeshift solution for manager Frank Lampard.

After a particularly low-key start to his time on Merseyside, it seemed as if Dele would finally have an opportunity to turn the page.

But then came the snub. Not once, but twice. Young winger Anthony Gordon was preferred in the central striking role against Chelsea and Aston Villa, despite having limited success in the first game of the season. Once again, opportunity had passed Dele by.

Now that chance at Goodison has disappeared altogether.

It says a great deal about Dele’s time at Everton that the club were prepared to let him go even as their injury problems persisted. The teenager that once had the world at his feet is seemingly no longer deemed good enough for the Premier League, and will instead ply his trade in Turkey with Besiktas. He has joined on loan with a view to a permanent move. Besiktas will not pay a loan fee.

Dele Alli
Dele has not taken his chance at Everton (Photo: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

It is a fall from grace few could have seen coming during those hugely successful days at Spurs under Mauricio Pochettino. But equally, it is a demise that, on the evidence of the last few seasons, seemed inevitable.

At this point, it must be acknowledged that the decision to jettison Dele is not purely a footballing one. As ever with this version of contemporary Everton, there is a financial basis too.

Besiktas will pick up a substantial chunk of the 26-year-old’s wages, paying a guaranteed wage of €2.2million, with a maximum of €10,000 per match, depending on the time and competition of each match. Everton will also avoid having to fork out a £10million fee, as Dele falls seven appearances short of triggering the 20-match payment threshold agreed with Tottenham.

Although Spurs are entitled to a decent percentage of any profit Everton make on the midfielder, there is still a sizeable saving being made on a player no longer deemed essential at Goodison.

In hindsight, Jose Mourinho’s cautionary words to Dele in Amazon Prime’s documentary, All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur, now function as a fitting epitaph for Dele’s time in the Premier League.

“I am 56 now and yesterday I was 20,” Mourinho said. “Time flies. One day, I think you will regret it if you don’t reach what you can reach.

“I’m not expecting you to be the man of the match every game, I’m not expecting you to score goals every game. I want to tell you that I think you will regret it. You should demand more from yourself.”

The challenge for Mourinho, Lampard and indeed every other manager since Pochettino has been to get the fire burning in Dele again.

All have tried, all have failed, with Lampard the latest to come up short.

Spurs, Everton
Mourinho watches Dele warm up for Spurs in October 2020 (Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Dele has been an enticing challenge to managers ever since his sharp decline in performance. Everyone has know that the talent was still in there somewhere, and many have attempted to coax it out.

In January, Lampard became the latest to try his hand.

This was not a move that happened out of the blue.

Operating in a vacuum following the departure of director of football Marcel Brands and head of recruitment Gretar Steinsson, Moshiri and Everton’s board had taken on responsibility for improving a faltering side in the January window.

The interest in Dele pre-dated Lampard’s arrival, even if it is also true that the pair are represented by the same CAA Base agency. Everton had been aware of Dele’s availability for some time and initially explored a loan move.

It is understood Moshiri and co sought opinions from across football on the potential signing, with some of those they spoke to expressing reservations over the move. The general opinion was that reviving Dele would be a huge challenge, particularly when Mourinho, Antonio Conte and others had already failed. A lost cause? Maybe.

To some with intricate knowledge of Everton’s setup and processes, the transfer was seen as a sign that lessons had not yet been learned. That the pursuit of another faded star, in Dele, meant the club was lapsing back into the ways of old that had got them in trouble last season. Others gave a more nuanced view, stressing the potential still there in his game if someone could just find a way to harness it.

On all sides, it was felt Lampard could be a fitting mentor, and the Everton manager was keen to try to get through to the midfielder.

Dele was a name that cropped up during Lampard’s final interview for the job at Goodison, as the Everton board presented potential targets to candidates for further discussions. Confirmed as new manager late in the window, Lampard signed off on the deal before the deadline.

Strengthening midfield was a key priority as he looked to overhaul Everton’s style, and he had long been a fan of his new charge’s talents.

Having used up their domestic loans quota on Anwar El Ghazi and Donny van de Beek, and with money tight, a buy-now-pay-later deal was reached that worked within Everton’s financial structure.

Dele arrived at Goodison both as a marquee signing — someone whose name and status in the game appealed to Moshiri in particular — but also as a long-term project.

Van de Beek and Alli are unveiled in February (Photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Given the extent of his fall, the general feeling was that it would take time and hard yards, on all sides, to make the necessary inroads.

By the start of April, when Everton’s turbulent season reached alarming new lows with consecutive defeats by West Ham and fellow relegation battlers Burnley, it was notable that Dele had become an unused substitute.

The same went for the narrow win over Manchester United that granted a much-needed slither of hope. With backs-against-the-wall grit required, Dele wasn’t an option.

It prompted questions to the manager, who revealed that he had felt it necessary to sit down with the player privately and underline some basic requirements.

“In the last two weeks, Dele’s training has been spot-on,” Lampard said, reflecting on the response to his intervention. “I explain a lot to him in terms of the demands of training and application, and being ready whenever that moment comes.

“I don’t think the story was ever going to be simple with Dele after the last two or three years. Sometimes you have to work and fight through things, and we’re in that process with him.”

Lampard’s diplomacy, caveated with a more positive assessment, was not the first time he had carefully discussed the need for Dele to do more.

“Dele has to train and show he is in that thinking,” he said previously. “And every time he comes on, he has to show he is worthy of starting a game.”

He felt it necessary to repeat it again on the eve of the new season. “The first thing Dele needs to do is find consistency in his training and that is something I have spoken about,” Lampard said. “For me, full pelt in training is non-negotiable, and Dele needs — needed — to understand that is important for me and for him.”

It seemed the penny only ever dropped temporarily. At times, it was felt internally that even youngsters from the under-23 squad were making a more compelling case for inclusion during training sessions last season. For Lampard, who operates according to a train-as-you-play basis, it was a red flag.

Like many of his team-mates, Dele chose to base himself along the M62 in Manchester.

At first, he lived at the Lowry Hotel in Salford, where Mourinho stayed for a large part of his spell as Manchester United manager, before moving with his girlfriend to an apartment in the city.

A move to the north west and Everton had been seen as a helpful step away from the distractions of the capital, where things had gone so badly wrong in a professional sense. A chance to start again.

On days off, though, it was noted that Dele would usually head back to London.

That is not to say he did not try to forge relationships with his Everton team-mates. He became friendly with Dominic Calvert-Lewin and was generally popular in the dressing room, although for others at the club, he just did not seem a typical Everton player.

Though never rude or disrespectful to staff, he could seem odd and occasionally detached. There were also concerns in some quarters that his business activities outside of football, such as his clothing line, could be unhelpfully influencing players such as Gordon, Calvert-Lewin or Tom Davies.

There would be elusive hints of a corner turned. Dele returned from his summer holidays in Capri and the Turks & Caicos Islands in great condition. He had been running during the break and it set him in good stead to impress during early sessions at Finch Farm, when he regularly led the group in running sessions.

But even that and a brace in the penultimate summer warm-up game at Blackpool weren’t enough to convince Lampard, who puts such an emphasis on hard work, that Dele would offer a solution in the opening two games of the season.

Dele celebrates scoring against Blackpool during pre-season (Photo: Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images)

It was almost as if the stalling of each positive turn began to erode Lampard’s confidence that consistency would ever arrive.

Dele created Richarlison’s crucial equaliser in the home draw with Leicester at the end of April, but only managed 18 minutes combined in the following defeat by Liverpool and win over Chelsea. Cue another three games as an unused sub. Chances were so fleeting that he was never able to drum up any real momentum.

However, his best, and most significant, moment was the match-turning performance from the bench in May’s comeback win over Crystal Palace, which secured Everton’s top-flight survival.

The quality and desire on show during that memorable night could have been a watershed moment. But by the time he was handed his first and only start, in the final game of the season at Arsenal, that momentum was gone.

It did not help that there was no obvious role in the team. At times, it seemed as if Dele was positionally homeless in Everton’s system, perhaps even the wider modern game at large. Lampard had said he was an option in the false nine role but declined to use him.

Despite the manager also hinting at a potential wide attacking remit, Dele seemed to lack the dynamism to take Demarai Gray’s place, and there was never an easy fit into the split striker role that has also been mentioned as suiting him.

It was felt in some quarters that the arrival of plain-speaking, hard-working professionals such as James Tarkowski and Conor Coady to complement Jordan Pickford and Seamus Coleman could have led to further home truths heading Dele’s way. That, it was feared, might have caused him to shrink further into himself.

“Sometimes it’s support and sometimes it’s tough love,” said Lampard in response to another question on how to revive Dele’s form. “Sometimes you have to hear serious things to get the best out of yourself. Dele or any player, that is.”

There is no way to know exactly how he may have reacted, of course. But that lack of conviction and consistency left too many doubts when Everton needed clarity and expediency.

In the end, the prospect of paying an initial £10million for a player who had flattered to deceive left Lampard to make a hard decision.

“It just feels like the best thing is to move on,” says a club source, who asked not to be named to protect their role. “If all Dele ever contributed was the cameo against Palace then in itself you could say he was worth taking a punt on.”

He leaves Merseyside with more questions than answers about his future. The concerns that followed him from London to the north west will move on to Turkey.

Perhaps Lampard said it best. With Dele, it was never going to be simple.

Now he is a puzzle for someone else to try to solve.

(Top photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

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